Mysteries of the Staffordshire Roaches
I recently wrote about the mysterious chasm of Lud's Church, located at the end of The Roaches ridge in the Staffordshire Moorlands. But what of The Roaches themselves? And what exactly is that place in the group cover picture?
Many curious cliffs and rock formations can be found around the southern edge of the Peak District, with The Roaches one of the most impressive. The name is just old French for “the rocks”, but here there is a concentration of folklore and strangeness you won't find in many other such places. It is a long ridge of gritstone stretching several miles from just outside Leek all the way along to Lud's Church and beyond, and the best way to explore it is to start at Hen Cloud. This, then, is our cover image, a natural fortress of rock but there is a path into it once one gets closer. “Cloud” here is from the Old English word for hill and on certain days you are indeed in the clouds if you arrive early enough with the right weather conditions.
Walking down the other side of Hen Cloud one encounters the Bawdstone, a large boulder held up on “struts” of smaller pointed stones. This strange tripod has sat like this for centuries, some concluding that it was probably a Bronze Age place of ceremony, but we do know for sure that local people have always regarded it as a “healing stone”, with the sick and disabled being passed under it, along with women wishing to have a successful pregnancy. This led to local churches introducing a whitewashing ceremony where folk would gather from all around to clean and paint the Bawdstone every May Day. A symbolic triumph of the “good” church over the “bad” heathen practises it would seem, while allowing people to keep their ancestral sense of place perhaps. When I arrived there recently the gap under the Bawdstone was completely filled with water so unfortunately I can't vouch for it's healing powers yet – my poor back could do with it!
Walking onwards it isn't long before the path splits with the option to go down a carved stone stairway to Rock Hall Cottage. This was once a natural cave with more boulders piled behind it, adding further room for it's most well known inhabitant – Old Bess Bowyer. She was called a witch, and to outsiders she probably did appear like one, living completely rough in a cavern strung with drying herbs and dozens of candles spaced about. One “room” was to sleep in while the other actually had a stream flowing through it, directly down from the ridge. In the far corner of this lair was a tiny tunnel that led out to the other side of the ridge and out onto the moors beyond. Bess would hide poachers and deserters from the authorities then show them the secret exit which they squirmed through to freedom while their baffled pursuers searched the cavern in vain. Bess was said to be descended from “Bowyer of the “Rocks”, an outlaw leader who made the caves and hollows of The Roaches his home during the Civil War, and it was also claimed that she had a daughter living there with her. As Lord Philip Brocklehurst, the then owner of the estate, told the tale in his book “Swythamley and it's Neighbourhood, Past and Present”
A young handsome girl, her reputed daughter, lived with her, but about whose history much mystery and doubt existed. The girl had a fine voice and could be heard on summer nights among the rocks singing sadly to herself songs that sounded foreign to English ears. One winter morning the hag was seen in great distress. Strange men had seized and carried off her child. The daughter never returned and at last the supposed mother was herself discovered dead in her lonely home.
After the death of poor old Bess Brocklehurst set about converting the cave into Rock Hall Cottage as we know it today, a small “castle” built around the original cave that had no mains water or power for over a century. The head gamekeeper lived in it and raised twelve children in these conditions, and the whole family were turfed out for the weekend whenever a set of Brocklehurst's chums came to hunt as it was used for a lodge. A cousin of Queen Victoria, Princess Mary of Teck, visited The Roaches with her husband the Prince as a guest of the lord and today one can still try out the “Queen's Seat” carved out specially for her atop the ridge. Many changes to the rocks are still evident, there is even a spot where a cannon was moored to fire in tribute to the royal visit. Today Rock Hall Cottage is also known as the Don Whillans Hut, dedicated to the legendary Manchester climber and explorer and is a centre for climbing enthusiasts.
Back up onto the ridge and a little further on, we arrive at Doxey's Pool. A lonely and odd stretch of water that while sitting on top of a high rock ridge, never seems to dry up, no matter how hard or prolonged the drought. Lots of legends centre around the pool, the main one that it is haunted by a monstrous freshwater mermaid named Jenny Greenteeth. She was said lure young men towards her while masquerading in the form of a beautiful young woman is distress, then reveal her true form as they sank down into the bottomless mud at the pool's centre. It is interesting that barely a mile away is Blackmere Pool which itself has a mermaid legend attached to it, and further into the Peak District at Kinder Scout is Mermaid's Pool, another small lake with a resident ladyfish. I don't think such a concentration of freshwater mermaid legends exists anywhere else in the world.
Some say that Bess Bowyer's mysterious daughter drowned herself in Doxey's Pool when she was abducted, preferring death to whatever fate awaited her at their hands, and her singing voice can sometimes be heard at night around the pool. The name of the water is interesting too, as a Doxey was a medieval female “hustler”, a predatory scam artist, fake fortune teller and prostitute or whatever term was used then, so perhaps one of these characters worked their scams here for a time. Perhaps Doxey's Pool, like the Bawdstone, was also a place of ritual for druids and other ancient figures. It certainly has the atmosphere, surrounded by rocks as it is and I did spot a curious bowl shaped hollow carved out of one of the stones, similar to one seen at Rowtor Rocks.
These are just a few of the fascinating and at times spooky places and stories from The Roaches, and I will write up some more for the next post.
View from The Roaches down towards Leek
Rock Hall Cottage, this part here was the cave of Bess Bowyer
The Bawdstone - a lot of water underneath!
Face in the stone above Rock Hall Cottage
The Dog Stone
The Queen's Chair on the Roaches